How on earth did we come to this – our national airline suspending bookings from Britain’s leading airport? BA’s confirmation last night that it would no longer be selling short-haul Heathrow tickets until August 8 would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. Now it’s just the latest extraordinary twist in this summer’s litany of travel chaos.
The suspension is a direct consequence of Heathrow imposing a daily cap of 100,000 passengers – the highest it believes it can handle in the current circumstances. And it could take even longer. BA didn’t answer my question about whether the booking freeze could be extended, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it did – the airport cap is in place until 12 September.
Over the past month, there have been a spate of allegations between Heathrow and the airlines it serves, with both Virgin Atlantic and Emirates criticizing the airport’s failure. Meanwhile, Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye, speaking to Radio Four’s Today programme, pointed the blame on the airlines: “Airports do not offer ground handling, this is provided by the airlines themselves. So that’s like being accused of not having enough pilots.”
The rhetoric has now been scaled back, with Heathrow claiming that punctuality and baggage handling services have improved as a result of the cap. BA’s latest statement still blames the airport but seeks to make a virtue of its decision to stop selling tickets on some flights: “Following Heathrow’s request to limit new bookings, we have decided to To take responsible action and limit available fares on some Heathrow routes to maximize rebooking opportunities for existing customers given the restrictions imposed on us and the ongoing challenges facing the wider airline industry.”
But this is hardly a situation that anyone – neither the travel industry nor us passengers – would want to find ourselves in. Millions of us have already ruined or changed our travel plans, and many more have faced chaotic queues, long delays and more lost luggage. Now – for the next week – we are unable to book a seat on many of BA’s main routes to Europe.
It is understandable that the travel industry will face challenges in recovering from the impact of the pandemic. But the failure of so many airports and airlines to anticipate and manage the huge surge in bookings in recent months has been deplorable. And it’s been thrown into sharp relief by the success of the few who got it right.
Prominent among these was Ryanair. True, it’s been helped by the fact that it doesn’t fly from Heathrow, one of the worst-hit airports, and one of its biggest bases is Stansted, which has thrived. But it has managed to operate almost all of its services as planned this summer. And as a result, due to recent restrictions, it will be the biggest winner. While BA and Heathrow put bookings on hold, Ryanair is open for business.
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